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Destination: France

Where Champagne is king

Along the region's scenic back roads, makers of what Voltaire called the 'wine of wit' open their doors for tastings and tours.

September 19, 2004|Cecilia Rodriguez | Special to The Times

Epernay, France — "Champagne," actress Marlene Dietrich said, "gives you the impression that it's Sunday, that the best days are still to come."

But there's more to the roi du vins than mere bubbles and promises, as my husband, David, and I found on a visit last winter to the Champagne region. Champagne sits unchallenged on its throne not only because it has been the drink of choice for French kings, popes and European nobility since the Middle Ages but also because an intricate web of rituals and rigid regulations work to protect and burnish the image of refinement that goes with every flute of the sparkling drink.

The center of this intrigue is France's northeast region of Champagne. Its unique combination of climatological and geological conditions makes it ideal for producing "Champagne." Similar wines produced in other parts of Europe legally are barred from using the label.

Along Champagne's back roads, in 86,000 strictly defined acres of vineyards -- which make up just 3% of France's wine-grape production area -- no fewer than 14,695 Champagne producers work their magic on 12,500 brands, mostly sold in France. Lately, though, Americans are falling under Champagne's spell: Sales of French Champagne in the U.S. rose 15% last year.

David and I started our three-day discovery of the region in Epernay, one of Champagne's two capitals, about 90 minutes from Paris by car. Our base was the appropriately named Royal Champagne hotel, a Relais & Chateaux hotel that frequently hosted Napoleon on his way to Reims, where most of France's kings were crowned.

The Royal Champagne sits at the crest of a privileged hill in the town of Champillon, just minutes from Epernay, overlooking vineyards and villages of the Marne River valley. We chose it not only because of the hotel's impeccable service but also because of its Michelin-starred restaurant, which has one of the region's most comprehensive wine lists. We counted more than seven pages listing more than 200 wines, served by a knowledgeable sommelier.

The Champagne legend begins in the 10th century, when Europe's ruling classes fell in love with the drink and local producers refined their efforts to control the wine's natural effervescence and temper its impetuous nature. Poets, artists and philosophers have sung its praises since. The philosopher and writer Voltaire declared it the "wine of wit."

But the scientific method that produces the limpid, golden wine of today, with its long-lasting, natural bubbles, belongs to Dom Perignon, a 17th century Benedictine monk and cellar master at the Abbey of St. Pierre d'Hautvillers. He discovered the secret of the "second fermentation," experimented with blending grapes from different vineyards and had the brilliant idea of tying the cork with wire to the bottle to seal in the bubbles.

On a hill next to Champillon, Dom Perignon's abbey and the adjacent church rise above the village of Hautvillers. The church itself is worth a visit. If you are lucky, as we were, the sound of nuns singing Gregorian chants will fill the vast space as you glimpse the remains of the monk in a small black urn of glass and marble.

On our way there, we passed vineyards with such familiar names as Taittinger, Veuve Clicquot, Claude Remy and Clouet-Vazart. Along the sloping streets of the village, wrought-iron signs announced the trades of the residents, most of them Champagne makers, of course: Petit and Fils, Saint Vincent, Adam Revolte, G. Tribaut, L. Nicaise.

Local guidebooks -- and signs posted at doors -- insist you should simply knock and you'll be asked in to taste the product and learn how it is made. But we didn't take advantage of the open invitations because we had appointments to visit two vineyards.

Beyond Hautvillers, we had a list of other "must-see" places, among them the town of Ay, with its towering Gothic church and distinctive wood-framed houses. It runs along some of the oldest vineyards in the region, including Maison Gosset, founded in 1584.

Most of the time we devised our own routes, never failing to stumble on a castle, a historical house, a stunning view or an ancient church next to a maison de Champagne. But a couple of times we followed one of the well-marked routes turistiques, such as the Cote des Blancs, winding 18 miles from Epernay south to the village of Vertus and earning its name from vineyards planted mainly with Chardonnay grapes used to produce blanc de blancs -- Champagne made from 100% Chardonnay.

Most of the biggest brands, known as grande marques, have vineyards here. The route includes Oger, one of France's prettiest towns, and Cramant, marked by a gigantic Champagne bottle at its entrance.

As we drove through Champagne's enchanting vineyards, streets and towns, 45 feet below us lay a hidden kingdom: 150 miles of cellars that guard more than 290 million bottles of Champagne -- worth more than $4.2 billion -- in various stages of aging.

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